NEW WORRY FOR WEST: ENCIRCLEMENT OF IRAN: This week's NATO conference has turned out to be a sounding board for widespread concern over growing Soviet penetration in areas of the world vital to Western interests. Recent events in Africa and the Middle East have drawn the most attention.
The carnage in Zaire, and resultant French-Belgian counterthrust to drive out the Communist-trained invaders have finally alerted even Washington to the fact that, indeed, Russia really is up to something.
There is another area of the world too, that bears serious watching. That is the strategic Near East region of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"The Iranian government," reports the Los Angeles Times, "is deeply worried by recent events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its neighbors. to the east, fearful that a leftist takeover combined with ethnic pressures and political instability could produce a Soviet toehold on the Arabian Sea astride Iran's oil routes. interest in the new regime in Afghanistan, and its pressure on Pakistan to get its house in order to help block expansion of Communist influence."
The shah's staunchly anti-Communist government was shocked by last month's leftist coup in' Afghanistan which brought to power a military-backed Marxist group that shuns the label Communist, but appears to be receptive to Soviet influence and all the strings to which it is attached.
Shah Mohammed Reza Phlavi reportedly has told Pakistan's strongman General Zia ul-Haq to drop the threatened execution of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto is appealing a death sentence imposed after he was convicted of ordering the murder of a political opponent. The execution of the popular Bhutto, Iranian officials believe, could revive smoldering ethnic disputes that have been constant sources of trouble in this part of the world.
These latent troubles revolve around two Pakistan ethnic groups — the Pushtuns (also called Pathans) and the Baluchis. Pushtuns are found in northwest Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, they are the major ethnic group. For years, relations between the two countries were strained by Afghanistan's insistence on autonomy for the Pushtuns in Pakistan, or creation of an independent Pushtunistan. The new rulers of Afghanistan might try to push this autonomy issue to the fore.
The Baluchis occupy Pakistan's sparsely settled southwestern region bordering Iran, and they, believe that development in their province lags behind Pakistan's more prosperous provinces.
"These seeds of regional discontent," said the Times report, "could sprout if Pakistan's military regime allows Bhutto to be executed. And the shah fears, close informants say, that the Russians could capitalize on such instability to promote movements for autonomy among the Pushtuns and Baluchis, which might lead to puppet states in what is now Pakistan, and to the achievement of a Russian dream going back to czarist days — access to a warm-water port on the Arabian Sea.
"That would bring Soviet influence close to the Straight of Hormuz, the bottleneck through which passes practically all the oil of the rich Gulf states, including that of Iran."
The Afghan coup has only added to the Iranian obsession that the country is being encircled by Communist enemies. It has a 2,000-kilometer border with the Soviet Union, pro-Moscow Iraq to the south, and now Afghanistan on the east.
"We must stop them all of us," said a senior official in Teheran. "If we don't, they will destabilize the whole area."
But Iranian leaders are skeptical that the United States is capable of appreciating their danger and reacting sensibly to it.